“Why does the Church still use the King James Version?” Ensign, June 1987, 23–25
Franklin S. Gonzalez, institute teacher, Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. When the Church was organized in 1830, the King James Version (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version, was the translation predominantly used in the English-speaking world. Latter-day Saints relied on it in their meetings, and the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price were written in a style of language similar to that in the KJV.
Joseph Smith also used an 1828 edition of the KJV to prepare an inspired version of the Bible. President J. Reuben Clark lists the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) as one reason the Church uses the KJV:
“For our Church membership, the Authorized Version is to be followed in preference to others because the Inspired Version by the Prophet Joseph Smith [the Joseph Smith Translation] agrees with the Authorized Version in those essential particulars where other versions vary.” (Why the King James Version? Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956, pp. 60–61.)
Early Church leaders were partial to the KJV not only because they had grown up with it, but also because the KJV was couched in language unparalleled for its literary beauty. Madeleine and J. Lane Miller write about the KJV:
“Its O. T. far surpassed any English translation in its faithfulness to the Hebrew text and the simplicity of its style. Its N. T. is so expressive in language and form that it is said to rival the original Greek as literature. Its majestic, direct, forceful prose has never been surpassed in English literature.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 8th ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 165.)
The Prophet learned early in his ministry that the original biblical texts had been corrupted at an early date. (See 1 Ne. 13:25–29.) Hence, all translators would have difficulty producing an accurate Bible whether they used the twelfth- to fourteenth-century manuscripts available to the KJV translators or used earlier manuscripts. Weaknesses in modern Bible versions are more often the result of faulty Hebrew and Greek texts than of logical misconceptions and renditions.
For example, the following verse in which the Lord is speaking to Cain has been difficult for many translators to understand:
KJV, Gen. 4:7
If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
“If you are ill disposed, is not sin at the door like a beast hungering for you, which you must master?”
JST, Gen. 5:9
New English Bible
If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan desireth to have thee. … It shall be unto thee according to his desire; and thou shalt rule over him.
If you do well, you are accepted; if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door. It shall be eager for you, and you will be mastered by it.
The problem of what the pronouns (his and him in the KJV; it in the NEB) refer to has led many modern translators to refer to the word sin and to expand the personification (“crouching beast” and “demon”) so that the passage would make more sense. Evidently, this is an example of a corruption of the original text, in which the actual reference to Satan was lost. Joseph Smith restored that in the Joseph Smith Translation, and his rendition of the phrase is now found in the book of Moses.
Deletion is one of the main problems in Bible translations. Sometimes words, phrases, or entire verses are deleted. For instance, Luke 22:43–44 describes the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane more fully than any other passage in the gospels:
“There appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (KJV.)
Some Bible translations do not include these verses because some ancient manuscripts do not have them. The Anchor Bible lists the ancient manuscripts that omit and that contain these verses and adds, “The decision to admit them into the text or to omit them from it is not easy; the matter is hotly debated among textual critics today. … The external witnesses to the text are almost equally divided.” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, trans. and notes, The Gospel According to Luke (X–XXIV), The Anchor Bible, vol. 28a, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985, p. 1443.)
That Jesus actually sweat blood was established by the Lord, who told Joseph Smith, “I, God, have suffered these things for all … ; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore.” (D&C 19:16, 18.)
The problem of what to retain or omit in translation is not as crucial for the Latter-day Saint. Much of the KJV text—particularly many chapters of Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount—is contained in the Book of Mormon or verified in the Pearl of Great Price or in the Doctrine and Covenants, as in the above instances. In the following example, the KJV renders Matthew 5:22 this way:
“Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” [Matt. 5:22]
The phrase “without a cause” has been found to be an interpolation not in the most reliable early manuscripts (which were unavailable to the KJV translators), and most modern translations leave it out. (See The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7, New York: Abington Press, 1951, p. 295.) Likewise, 3 Nephi 12:22 [3 Ne. 12:22] omits it. Years before the Christian scholars concluded that the phrase was not a part of scriptural canon, Joseph Smith translated a Nephite record that did not contain it.
Occasionally deletion occurs in modern translations because of the way translators render a phrase. In the following scriptural quotations, italics have been added for easy comparison:
Isa. 2:2–3, KJV
It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
In the last days Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord will become the world’s greatest attraction, and people from many lands will flow there to worship the Lord.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the god of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
“Come,” everyone will say, “let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the god of Israel; there he will teach us his laws, and we will obey them.” For in those days the world will be ruled from Jerusalem.
Note that in the Living Bible translation the doctrine of two world capitals, the New and Old Jerusalems, has been deleted. Because our latter-day scriptures are tied so closely to the KJV, verifying and occasionally correcting that translation, the problem of deletion is minimized.
Often the more recent Bible versions abandon terminology familiar to the Latter-day Saint, inadvertently disguising great doctrines of the Restoration:
Eph. 1:10, KJV
That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ.
When the time is ripe he will gather us all together from wherever we are.
J. Reuben Clark examined revisionism in the New Testament, consulting the 1885 Revised Version of the KJV and the 1952 RSV. His conclusion was that “the effect of the position of the Extreme Textualists as set forth in their Revisions of the Bible, is to weaken, if not destroy the Messiahship of Jesus. Incidents recorded in the King James Version have been omitted from the Revised Version; substantial parts of whole chapters … have been omitted; doctrines and teachings have been changed; doubts have been cast on fundamental expressions declaring the divinity … of Jesus the Christ; faith-destroying questions have been raised by marginal notes and by the text itself; the personality of Jesus in its Christian concept has, in effect, been challenged.” (Clark, pp. 6–7.)
Other translations have also made doctrinal errors in their choices of phrasing. In this next example, modern translators have clearly substituted the doctrine of justification by faith for that of faith and works:
Philip. 2:12, KJV
Wherefore, my beloved,
In the following verses, translators of the KJV and the Jerusalem Bible have used similar phrases with entirely different meanings:
Heb. 12:9, KJV
Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
We ought to be even more willing to submit ourselves to our spiritual Father, to be given life.
The view that the Great Elohim is the father of all spirits is central to the plan of salvation, and the deletion of that concept out of the Holy Writings is a serious blow to one’s understanding of God.
Is there any value then for the Latter-day Saint in using modern English translations? Although the Church prefers to continue with the KJV for its English-speaking members, we should not assume that the many other translations are not useful. They oftentimes explain passages that are difficult to understand. In cases of confusing phrases and archaic words, readers can quickly compare the verses with those in other translations. In addition, comparing many different translations will often expand one’s understanding of a particular verse.
We should also remember that the Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible gives in the footnotes many alternative phrases that make the KJV wording clear. In fact, our edition of the Bible has made the KJV much more useful and understandable because of its extensive notation and cross-references, its maps, and the LDS Bible dictionary. That edition enables us to continue using with confidence the translation that agrees most closely in language and doctrine with our latter-day scriptures.